Trenton is not helping schools keep costs down

This is part of a series from education blogger Laura Waters of NJ Left Behind.

Here’s the good news: New Jersey is lurching forward on issues that impede our public school system. Joining a growing number of other states in the country (including Pennsylvania and Delaware), we’ve reformed tenure, implemented a system of teacher evaluations partially based on student outcomes, and signed on to a more rigorous national curriculum called the Common Core. All these initiatives are intended to protect our best teachers and raise professional and scholastic standards. Ultimately, they’re about providing academic excellence to all schoolchildren.

Here’s the bad news: the New Jersey Legislature seems intent on spending its time proffering ill-conceived legislation that has nothing to do with academic excellence or schoolchildren.  One example is Assembly Patrick Diegnan’s charter school proposal. (See last week’s column.) And now two other bills, not new but garnering new momentum, are working their way through the Statehouse.

The bills

The first, bill S-2163, sponsored by (count’em) 20 senators, was approved last Monday in the Assembly by a vote of 51-26. The bill, which now awaits Gov. Christie’s signature, (more on that in a minute) confers tenure-like protection on non-certificated staff like teaching assistants, bus drivers, security guards, and cafeteria aides. More specifically, S-2153 disallows school districts from dismissing non-teaching professionals without submitting to (expensive and time-consuming) binding arbitration, a kind of legal hearing process. This is more job protection, by the way, than we currently offer non-tenured teachers and administrators.

The second bill, S-968, also approved by the Assembly, imposes numerous restrictions on the ability of school districts to use private-sector companies. Outsourcing non-instructional functions of a school district — food services, custodial work, transportation — is an increasingly common way for school districts to find efficiencies and keep budget cuts away from the classroom. According to the New Jersey School Boards Association, the proposed law, also headed to Gov. Christie’s desk, “would establish an onerous bureaucratic process and impose numerous restrictions on state and local governments – including school boards – that would essentially eliminate any savings that could be achieved through privatization.”

In other words, both bills undermine the ability of school districts to achieve efficiencies outside of the classroom by bestowing tenure-like protections on non-teaching personnel and limiting districts’ ability to cut costs in non-instructional arenas. These are bills that protect adults, not schoolchildren.

For a little context, consider this: no other state in the country offers tenure-like protection to bus drivers or cafeteria aides. (Louisiana had such a law but overturned it last year.)

After all the focus on cutting costs and directing funds towards student academic achievement, why would the Senate entertain such legislation? Look to the power of New Jersey Education Association, which is fiercely lobbying for both bills.

From NJEA’s promotional material regarding the first bill S-2163, it requires districts to enter into arbitration whenever they want to dismiss a security guard or cafeteria aide: “(It) merely brings equity and fairness to the handling of school employee disciplinary matters.  What is fair and just for certain public school employees should be fair and just for all public school employees.” Noted Ginger Gold Schnitzer, director of NJEA Government Relations, “This bill would not be on the governor’s desk without the tireless advocacy of NJEA members throughout the state.”

And from an NJEA press release regarding the second bill S-968, the bill that would it harder to privitize many non-classroom school services:

“Legislators were persuaded by the testimony they heard, as well as by the calls and emails from NJEA members.  ‘We keep hearing about savings as a reason to oppose the bill,’ said Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan Chair the Assembly Education Committee in Trenton. ‘Who knows better ways to find economies than the people who do the job? All this bill does is require the parties to negotiate.'”

So what’s up at the Statehouse? Does the Legislature simply pass economically-inane bills because it knows Gov. Christie won’t sign them? Did rational debate devolve into a Christie vs. Sen. Barbara Buono issue? (Buono voted for both bills and maybe Dems believed that their votes were proxies for campaign support.) What happened to the bipartisan consensus that NJ’s government is bloated and efficient and, therefore, municipalities and school districts need a “tool kit” to elicit savings?

New Jerseyans have plenty of reasons to feel cynical about state government. Now they have even more.

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Laura Waters is president of the Lawrence Township School Board in Mercer County. She also writes about New Jersey’s public education on her blog NJ Left Behind. Follow her on Twitter @NJLeftbehind.

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